Japan is the land of unique and interesting products. Some are wacky (just google Calorie Breath); some make you go “Aaahhh, I’d never have thought of that”, and others you want simply for their exceptionally beautiful design. So what to do when you’ve got a long list of people you need to give gifts to (including yourself) and so many options to choose from?
We’ve narrowed it down to the ones that tick the essential boxes: portable, reasonably-priced, actually useful, and representative of Japanese culture in a meaningful way. From the traditional to the innovative, here’s our top ten recommended Japanese souvenirs to take home.
1. Bento Box
There’s something about the way Japan does lunch that puts our habits back home to shame. Sweaty sandwiches in a soggy brown bag? Yeah, no. Here, lunch is beautifully curated; neatly packed in thoughtfully-designed compartments and paper cases to keep it all separate. Bring some of that savoire-y-faire to the people you love with a classic bento box gift. Most come with chopsticks included, so that they can look extra cultured during lunch hour.
2. Japanese Whisky
Move over, Scotland. Japan is now known for producing some of the finest whisky in the world after Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt won the top prize in the 2015 World Whisky Bible. The two prominent brands to look out for are Nikka – experts recommend the Nikka Yoichi Single Malt as best value for money – and Suntory, which has a range from supermarket offerings (remember what Bill Murray was advertising in Lost in Translation?) to the award-winner itself, Suntory Yamazaki 18 Years Old. Perfect for whisky aficionados, or anyone who likes a stiff drink.
3. Tabi Socks
Like mittens for feet, tabi are traditional Japanese socks that have a separation between the big toe and other toes so that you can wear socks with sandals and similar footwear. Before you recoil in abject horror, socks with sandals is a thing here in Japan, worn by both men and women underneath customary clothing like kimono. Old-school tabi fasten at the back, rather than being pulled on, but contemporary versions combine the split toe design with stretchy material. They’re ideal if you have split-toed running or water-shoes, need to slip flip flops on and off, or just want to give your big toe a bit of freedom…just us?
4. Matcha-flavored Anything
Kit Kats. Crackers. Ice cream. Cheese. You’d be forgiven for thinking that matcha wasn’t a type of tea in its original form, but it’s its own fault for making everything taste so darn good. You can easily pick up a matcha-flavored “something” in any local supermarket or souvenir shop. Be careful not to get confused between matcha and wasabi though; both are green, but one will make you cry tears of spicy sorrow if you overdo it.
5. Tenugui Towel
The absolute classic Japanese souvenir, tenugui are traditional cotton towels dyed with a beautiful pattern. You can use them for practically anything – which Japanese people do – from drying your hands to decorating your wall to wrapping and carrying your newly acquired bento box (see above). They’re one of the most popular omiyage (gifts) and a compact example of the way Japan attaches different functions to one object. They’re light, cheap, and come in a seemingly unlimited range of designs. Ideal for that relative who you never know what to get.
6. Hanko Stamp
In Japan, if you’re signing important documents you use a hanko instead of a signature. It’s kind of like a personal stamp, traditionally made of wood but now more commonly of plastic, that has your name on the end. Everybody has an official “seal” which they would have registered at their local City Hall but you can also easily make an unofficial version just for fun. You can either get yours custom-made (one for every member of the family) or pick up pre-made types with stereotypical Western names (John, Charlotte etc.) or adorably cliched phrases like “I love sushi.” Well, you can’t argue with the truth.
7. Bonsai Tree
The country’s love of all things miniature must have originated with the art of bonsai, brought over from China in the 6th Century, and now a famed Japanese art. Though they require specialized care, how much depends on the breed of plant. Fantastic for plant-lovers, or stressed out-friends or relatives, you can’t get more Zen than a bonsai tree. How you transport it depends on the policy of the airline you’re flying with; if it’s a no-no, you can also buy souvenir bonsai seed packets instead.
8. Daruma Doll
Japan’s most popular good luck charm, you’ll spot what look like little red heads without eyes being sold in any major tourist spot. Daruma dolls are actually paper mache representations of the father of Zen Buddhism, Daruma, seated in meditation – meant to symbolize positivity and reaching your objective. The ritual goes like this: get yourself a daruma at the beginning of the new year, color in one eye and make a wish or set yourself a goal. When it comes true, or you’ve achieved what you wanted to, you color in the other eye (hopefully before the end of the year is over).
9. Sensu Fan
Remember those paper fans you used to fold out of A4 paper in school? This is like the historic, exquisitely-made version. If you’ve ever been in Japan in the summer, you’ll know that handheld fans are still all the rage in spite of the invention of air conditioning. People will hand (gettit?!) out uchiwa or “rigid” fans on the street to help you cool down, and also to get you to buy stuff since they’re usually emblazoned with advertising. Go full geisha with a Japanese foldable fan, combining bamboo, and paper or silk.
10. Fake Plastic Food
In the form of magnets, key chains, iPhone cases, and pens, nothing beats the astonishing accuracy and therefore hilarity of Japanese plastic food. If you go to a restaurant in Japan, chances are it will have a fake food display of its menu; which can either work for or against it (depending on how well-made the model meals are). It all goes back to the pre-war Showa period, when candle-makers came up with an ingenious way to make it easy for customers to order food. Apparently the industry rakes in billions of yen annually. Luckily for us, this is one of the cheapest souvenirs you can pick up. There are even places where you can try making it yourself.
I need these in my life right now! Where can I find them?
There’s no shortage of souvenir shops in Japan but, if you’re hoping to impress, Noren is a good place to start your search. They have store locations in Kyoto and Tokyo, with a recent opening in trendy Kagurazaka. Don’t have time to shop? The newly launched GaijinPot Store is already selling out of its Japanese gift packs; readymade and wrapped sets featuring classic Japanese souvenirs with a contemporary twist. Check it out!
– This is a GaijinPot sponsored article in collaboration with Corazon.